For Mexican-born writer/director Guillermo Del Toro, horror movies are in the blood.
"Unfortunately - or fortunately - this is a genre that is frequently done with people that don't care about it," Del Toro said during a recent press stop in Houston. "It's not prestigious in that sense, and what I try to do is I try to put my best artistic foot forward into making a movie like Mimic or like Cronos, be it a vampire movie or whatever you want to call it, a beautiful film."
The 33-year-old filmmaker made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993 with Cronos, an unexpectedly human vampire flick. Since then, his appetite for horror has only escalated. "I'm not attracted to straight films at all," he said. "It's a bit like tastes for food. If you don't like something, you don't like it, and that's it. You're not gonna eat it, and that's the way I feel about making movies. I feel you gotta just take what you really love and do what you really wanna do."
For his first American film, Del Toro directed Mimic, an urban scary tale about a married pair of doctors (Academy Award-winner Mira Sorvino and Emma beau Jeremy Northam) who successfully wipe out a deadly disease in New York City. Three years later, the cure becomes the disease, taking on a life of its own by assuming the form of the most dangerous predator of all - humans.
"If people do not like or respect the (horror) genre for any reason, it's tough luck," Del Toro said. "The same is true for actors. Some actors come in with the totally wrong attitude. They are not open, they are not intelligent enough to understand this proposal. All the actors involved in Mimic were, so therefore I was very happy to have them."
The director of the upcoming gothic horror tale Mephisto's Bridge is indeed going for a chill factor, but Del Toro admitted that he takes a different approach to horror films than the kill-or-be-killed sensibility of many directors.
"I try to humanize the genre, because I think that very frequently you have people being butchered and quartered but you don't care about them, and frankly, in Mimic, I tried to make all the characters endearing, and then butcher some of them," Del Toro joked about his latest film, which features acting heavyweights like Giancarlo Giannini, F. Murray Abraham and Charles S. Dutton.
"It's like, why butcher only the assholes? That's stupid. That's politically correct, the same unwritten rule that tells you don't kill kids, don't kill dogs, don't kill old people. I think that this genre, if anything, was made to break the rules, so let's break 'em."
Indeed, the unconventional director seems to have an eye for the unexpected.
"I think it's a very liberating genre. It allows you to talk about things that you sometimes couldn't talk about with a straight face," Del Toro admitted. "You may be able to tell a melodrama of an old man and his granddaughter (as in Cronos) in a much better way than making it a sappy piece of melodrama by making the old guy suck blood.
"As irreverent or crazy as this may sound, if you have seen Cronos, you will probably agree with this, because it makes it more resonant, more powerful, more bold. And at the same time, I think that the only way for me to talk about human pride and arrogance against nature is the way it's talked about in Mimic."
While just the prospect of making an American film is daunting enough, Del Toro had the opportunity to work with a number of high-profile stars, including Oscar winners Sorvino and Abraham. That might have overwhelmed another filmmaker early in his career, but Del Toro seemed completely unfazed.
"They don't bring their Oscars to the set. I don't ask for them to bring them to the set. I ask the actors to be there, and as long as they're good actors, I'm happy," Del Toro said.
"In the impressionable area, I'm not impressionable. I'm not impressed by people, about what they have achieved or not, but about how they are as humans, and I had the luck and the blessing to work with great human beings. Mira is great, Jeremy is great ... and so forth."
Rather than forcing him to play the starstruck new kid on the block, working with so many different types of performers provided Del Toro with an interesting look at the world of acting.
"I think all of them bring different tools to play," Del Toro said. "I think at some point, jokingly or unjokingly, I said, 'We have in this car ambassadors of every single acting style there is.' Mira is method; Jeremy is pure, pure English, classically trained; Giancarlo is old European, faker actor that cries in front of the camera, the take stops, and he starts telling dirty jokes, and Charles is a character actor, purely American."
"To have all of them going at each other and with each other and against each other and in favor of each other, it was exciting, because then you have all these acting styles on the screen at the same time, and it's beautiful," Del Toro said.
Working in such a fast-paced genre and with so many recognizable actors, Del Toro seems to have the makings of a late-summer hit on his hands, a prospect he enjoys.
"As a product, I think the movie feels and moves and reads like a big movie. The scope of it, the effects that occur on the screen, it's spectacular in that sense," Del Toro said. Keep in mind, though, that this is the same guy who turned a loving grandpa into a bloodsucker in a previous film.
"I try to, at the same time, twist every little thing around so that it's different," Del Toro said.